John O. Honnold, the William A. Schnader Professor of Commercial Law Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an expert in private international law who was known as the father of the Vienna Convention, died on January 21. He was 95 and lived in Kennett Square, PA.
“John was a devoted member of the Penn Law community and an internationally renowned scholar who was passionate about using the law as an instrument of social change,” said Penn Law Dean Michael A. Fitts. “His extraordinary contributions to the legal field – from helping to create the UCC, to shaping the law of international trade, to advocating for civil rights during the tumultuous 1960’s – will influence and impact generations.”
Honnold was a member of the Penn Law faculty from 1946 to 1969, and again from 1974 until his retirement in 1984. He continued teaching as an emeritus professor until 1993. His contributions to the Law School include building a graduate program in law, which today welcomes 100 students each year from around the world. As a professor, Honnold was known for a classroom style that made his subject come alive. Emeritus Professor Curtis Reitz described him as one of those rare extraordinary teachers who “transcended courses and subject matter” to “leave a lasting imprint on the whole personality of their students.”
Honnold was as interested in the law in action as he was in the law on the books, and did significant work in the field of legal reform. In the 1950s, he was instrumental in preparing the Sales Article of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and defending the new Code against those who didn’t understand the importance of an updated sales law.
Through his work in sales and sales financing, Honnold became aware of a need for unification of the law governing international transactions in the field. He subsequently represented the United States at the International Conference on the Unification of Commercial Law held at The Hague in 1964.
When the United Nations established a Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) in 1969, the secretary general asked Honnold to be chief of the legal staff assigned to the Commission, a position that would require him to leave Penn Law. Honnold struggled with the decision but eventually took the position, becoming the leader of the Commission during its formative years of 1969-1974. During this time, he established the organizational framework that was instrumental to the Commission’s success in addressing the international sale of goods.
Honnold returned to Penn Law in 1974 but continued working on and advocating acceptance of the UNCITRAL draft. In 1980, the draft was adopted at the U.N. Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods in Vienna, Austria. For his work leading up to the adoption, Honnold became known as the “father of the Vienna Convention.”
“John’s work in the arena of international law reform was an inspiration to me,” said Professor Charles Mooney, who described Honnold as a true friend and colleague. “I have represented the United States government at more governmental experts meetings than I wish to recall and at three diplomatic conferences,” continued Mooney. “In every case I received many requests to pass on other participants’ well wishes to John. He made many friends along the way as he earned their great respect for his diplomacy, his judgment, and his powerful mind.”
Honnold’s interest in the law in action extended to a commitment to using the legal system to achieve social change. In 1965, when the civil rights struggle was erupting in the South, he volunteered as chief counsel in the Mississippi Office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. From this experience, he became a director of the American Friends Service Committee and a member of its Executive Committee.
Before he joined Penn Law, Honnold worked at the SEC and, during World War II, as chief of the Court Review Branch in the Chief Counsel’s Office of the Price Administration, defending the actions of the Office against businesses that were inflating prices due to the war. He began his career in private practice at a New York firm, but found the work uninteresting.
Honnold earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and his law degree from Harvard. He wrote several influential books, including Sales Transactions: Domestic and International Law (with Curtis Reitz) and Security Interests in Personal Property (with Steven Harris and Charles Mooney). Among his many honors were the Fulbright Senior Research Scholarship award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a visiting appointment to the Arthur Goodhart Professorship in the Science of Law at Cambridge University, and the Theberge Prize for Private International Law.
In presenting the Theberge Prize to Honnold, the chairman of the award committee noted that beyond Honnold’s career landmarks and personal accomplishments, he was known for his personality. Honnold is “thoughtful, gentle and fair,” the chairman said, but “beneath the gentle manner are a firm conviction and a strong sense of purpose often communicated with a very original sense of humor.”
Honnold is survived by his wife, Annamarie; and children, Heidi Spencer and Edward Honnold. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, February 5 at 2 pm in the William Penn Room of Crosslands in Kennett Square, PA. Contributions may be made in Honnold's honor to the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Inquirer: John O. Honnold Jr., 95; a Penn law professor who played an active role in 20th century events